HHS Assistant Secretary for Health and head of the U.S. Public Health Service Brett Giroir speaks at the White House on Sunday.

HHS Assistant Secretary for Health and head of the U.S. Public Health Service Brett Giroir speaks at the White House on Sunday. Alex Brandon/AP

Trump Administration Deploys More Feds for Airport Screenings, Coronavirus Testing

Deployments follow cries for an enhanced federal response.

Trump administration officials on Sunday detailed deployments of more federal employees in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. The employees will perform duties ranging from helping reduce airport lines to boosting testing for the virus across the country. 

Homeland Security Department acting Secretary Chad Wolf said at the White House that the long lines that greeted individuals arriving back to the United States over the weekend were “unacceptable,” but said the agency had “course corrected” to bolster staffing of customs officers and contracted medical screeners. The influx at airports occurred after President Trump suspended travel for non-U.S. citizens from most European countries and threatened to expand the restrictions elsewhere. The travel ban went into effect late Friday, leading to a funneling of Americans returning from Europe to certain airports where they then faced enhanced screenings.

“We addressed the problem,” Wolf said after photographs and videos of packed airports spread across social media over the weekend and sparked concerns about a potential spread of the virus in the crowded areas. “We have fixed it.” 

He added the changes would not come at the expense of the department’s screening efforts: “Rest assured, we are continuing our strict protocols of looking at individuals as they come into our country.” 

Governors had reached out to DHS and the White House and requested more screeners, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker, D-Ill., who tweeted “the federal government needs to get its s@#t together. NOW.” He said on Sunday Vice President Mike Pence had called him and promised Customs and Border Protection would boost staff at impacted airports. On Sunday evening, however, more complaints of long lines and unsafe crowding arose from international travelers. 

At the same White House press conference Sunday, Health and Human Services Department Assistant Secretary for Health and head of the U.S. Public Health Service Brett Giroir discussed plans to deploy his officers this week to help states set up drive-through coronavirus testing. Giroir said he reached out to each state through a system maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will help the Public Health Service send staff and supplies to stand up the easily accessible test sites. Trump declared a national emergency on Friday, enabling FEMA to tap into disaster relief funds to support federal deployments and response efforts. 

The Trump administration has faced significant criticism for its failure to distribute testing kits on a widespread basis. Giroir said this coming week would mark a turning point in that process, saying the Public Health Service would send supplies, personal protective equipment and, if the states required it, federal personnel to help run the test sites. 

“This is not make believe, this is not fantasy,” Giroir said, adding Americans will see Public Health Service officers in their states. “We will have the capability of testing tens of thousands of additional people through these sites every week.”